Kate’s Television Musings: What Makes a Good Pilot Episode?

By Kate Emswiler

Earlier this week, I read an article in which Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever examines what goes into a successful pilot episode — and why so many fail.  Mostly, he believes, it comes down to confidence … and not revealing all the fears and insecurities behind a show’s first wobbly steps.  So, I decided to take a look at one of this season’s newbies, “The Mob Doctor” (which has so far elicited a watery response) and juxtapose it with the pilot episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”, which I re-watched right after “Mob Doctor”.  The differences are stark, though obviously the shows are also not entirely similar. “Mob Doctor” is a crime drama, but it’s much higher on drama than it is on crime. ”Grey’s” is allowed to thread more humor throughout.  Most significantly: “Mob Doctor” follows one main protagonist, with the supporting roles silhouetted on the periphery, while “Grey’s” features a strong and varied ensemble cast.  “Grey’s” benefits from a kick-ass soundtrack, too, something that started in the pilot and has continued throughout the series.

I didn’t dislike “Mob Doctor” entirely, though it’s thinly drawn and it’s tough to care much about our protagonist, played by Jordana Spiro—she of the Chicago-based shows and Pantene-commercial hair.  Spiro plays Dr. Grace Devlin, a surgeon who got mixed up with the wrong folks and now owes a great debt to some shady Chicago mobsters.  Grace spends the whole first episode rushing around, wearing a worried expression while her gently bouncing hair adds a softness to the otherwise “gritty” situation.  She has a lot on her plate in this first episode and it ends up being exhausting, exasperating and yields little reward.

Stuever’s critique of not-so-great pilots can easily be applied to “Mob Doctor”:  The show seems insecure, uncertain.  Information is forced down our throats in an unnatural way (the old telling-not-showing issue) with lines like, “Grace, I realize that you are a plucky Southside girl who became a big-city doctor, but you are no better than anyone else here.”

In blunt contrast, the “Grey’s Anatomy” pilot is nothing if not confident, marching swiftly through the interns’ first 48 hours at Seattle Grace, keeping the tension high, the humor snappy and the character development gradual but steady.  The energetic ensemble cast allows for more of everything:  more comedic relief, more complex relationships, higher (and more interesting) stakes.  Plus, that voiceover narration that is so (rightfully) derided in other shows at least plays into the plot of “Grey’s” when the ending reveals that this whole time Meredith has been “narrating” to her mother.  Meredith earnestly describes the past two days to the famous Dr. Grey who has now, heartbreakingly, become too unaware to practice medicine — or to recognize her own daughter, who just spent her first exhilarating hospital shift trying to fill her mother’s shoes.

There’s so much richness in the “Grey’s Anatomy” pilot, as though everyone behind it simply wanted to tell a great first story, and as if they “don’t care that it could be canceled after two episodes”, which Stuever believes is key to a successful pilot.  To put a pun on it, viewers quickly felt that they were in good hands with this show.  Perhaps that’s why it has continued to air for so long (maybe too long, but that’s for another post) — the pilot was crafted with the swift surety of a surgeon’s movements.

To more confident pilots!

Kate’s Television Musings is a column running on Kate-book.com every Friday at 10:30am. It is written by the television obsessed Kate Emswiler, who you should follow on Twitter @k8ems.

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One thought on “Kate’s Television Musings: What Makes a Good Pilot Episode?

  1. Kate S. says:

    How could one even suggest Grey’s Anatomy hard been on too long… Let’s not go too far. Its one of the few shows that seems to still make sense even after all of the twists and turns of more than three seasons. Now this upcoming season will be interesting to see how the keep on doctors after their residency period. They were all meant to leave as they planned before the season finale. Is death and mayhem enough to halt natural graduation plans? I can’t wait to see how they I’ll this off. I thank the good Lord for ShondaLand. She is building an empire of air worthy television entertainment.

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